LAS VEGAS — There were moments Thursday, maybe when they led top-seed Nevada by 15 points in the first half or when they three times battled back to retake the lead in the second half, when the Boise State men’s basketball team looked much better than the eighth-best team in the Mountain West.
It was that kind of season, really.
The Broncos let a 15-point lead slip away, battled back to be right there in the final minutes before suffering a season-finishing 77-69 loss to No. 1 seed Nevada in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Tournament at the Thomas and Mack Center.
Boise State (13-20) hung tough with the league champs for 40 minutes, but saw its season come to an end in a similar way to how many games did this season: On the wrong end of a close, competitive game.
“That didn’t look like a team that had the record that we had,” Boise State coach Leon Rice said.
Derrick Alston had 21 points and Justinian Jessup had 18 for the Broncos, who lost for the 10th time this season when leading at the half.
The Broncos certainly aren’t the worst team in the history of the school, but they’ll have the most losses. Boise State established a program record with 20 losses in a season after losing a program-record nine games by three points or less or in overtime.
“The thing I’m proud of is the progress we’ve made,” Rice said. “We’re a lot better team than we were in November. We were a bad basketball team, to be honest. But at the end I think we played a lot of good minutes. (Still) we didn’t get near the results we wanted, not even close for this program.”
Boise State came out scorching hot to start the game, leading 9-3 on a 3-pointer from Alston. Another 3 from Jessup upped the lead to 17-5, and Jessup answered a Wolf Pack bucket with his second made 3 to put the Broncos in front 20-7 midway through the half.
Nevada, which started just 2 of 13 from the field, made it 22-12 on a 3-pointer from Jazz Johnson, but Alex Hobbs converted a traditional three-point play and Zach Haney scored inside on a nice move to give Boise State its biggest lead of the game at 27-12.
“We thought we were going to get them today,” senior Zach Haney said. “We thought we could beat them. We knew we could beat anybody down here at the tournament.”
But the Wolf Pack finally got going, using a quick 7-0 run to cut the Boise State lead to 27-19. The teams traded baskets before another 3-pointer from Johnson ignited a 6-0 run that brought Nevada within 32-27 with 1:45 left in the half. A bucket from Jessup and two free throws from Caleb Martin had the Broncos up 34-29 at the break.
Nevada started the half with five straight points to bring the score even at 34-34 for the first time since the opening tip. The Wolf Pack then took their first lead at 37-34 on a 3-pointer from Caleb Martin.
“I knew you weren’t going to knock out Nevada in the first half,” Rice said. “It’s going to take five punches, five times taking them to the canvas. Credit Nevada. They didn’t fold.”
But neither did the Broncos, who answered with six straight to go up 40-37, and then led 45-41 after a nice bucket from Alston with 14:20 to play. An 8-0 run gave Nevada a 49-45 lead, but a 3-pointer from Alston and a right-handed runner from the left-handed Jessup put the Broncos back in front 50-49.
Nevada ripped off another 8-0 surge to go up 57-50, the last two points coming on a thunderous dunk from Trey Porter. But the Broncos again didn’t fold, using two inside baskets and a 3 from Alston to tie the game at 57-57, and then took a 60-57 lead on a bucket and free throw from Hobbs with 5:29 to play.
“I thought they were really, really physical and didn’t back down from us at all,” Nevada coach Eric Musselman said. “I thought they played as physical and as tough against us as anybody all year.”
But the Wolf Pack, as they seemingly did all game, responded with a 9-2 run and went up 66-62 on a bucket from Tre’Shawn Thurman with just 2:50 to play.
Dickinson hit a 3-pointer from the corner to make it 66-65, but Nevada scored the next six points — including a crazy shot from Cody Martin as he tried to draw a foul — to lead 72-65 with 51 seconds left and put the game out of reach.
“I think it was one of the best games we played all year,” Dickinson said. “We really competed. They hit big shots at the end unfortunately. The season didn’t go the way we thought it would, but at the end of the day nobody can question our character or passion for the game.
“We had one of the most unluckiest seasons ever, but we never folded. And we didn’t fold today. We did a tremendous job competing for 40 minutes, and I’m proud for that.”
Dickinson had 12 points and Haney had 10 for the Broncos, who hit 8 of 17 shots from 3-point range but couldn’t overcome 19 points from Caleb Martin and 17 from Thurman.
Boise State finished the season as statistically the unluckiest team in the country. The Broncos ranked dead last, No. 353 out of 353 Division I teams, in Ken Pomeroy’s ‘luck factor’ rankings, and their -.192 rating Thursday was the lowest in the 18-year history of the KenPom.com rankings.
Call it luck, call it them being unable to close out games, call it not enough talent — call it whatever you want. But the Broncos showed Thursday they are much better than their 13-20 record shows and not the team that deserves to have the distinction of finishing with the most losses in program history.
But the pain and disappointment of this season figures to quickly give way to plenty of hope and optimism for the future. The Broncos bring back four starters and add a wealth of talent including Oregon transfer Abu Kigab, four redshirts and three-star point guard RayJ Dennis from Chicago.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited,” said Rice, who wished he could start practice tomorrow. “The Broncos are going to be back.”